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Two plead guilty in smuggling by boat that led to migrant’s death off La Jolla

Investigators near the Children’s Pool in La Jolla look over a small boat on the beach used in a smuggling attempt.
Investigators near the Children’s Pool in La Jolla look over a small boat on the beach that had been carrying 16 migrants in a smuggling attempt May 20. One migrant drowned.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The men admit to co-piloting the panga and ordering the migrants to jump into the surf without life jackets, the plea agreement states.

Two men who led a maritime smuggling journey that ended in the death of a fellow migrant off La Jolla pleaded guilty Aug. 18 in federal court in San Diego.

Victor Alfonso Soto Aguilar and Jose Ramon Geraldo Romero admitted to co-piloting the panga-style boat that landed near the Children’s Pool in the predawn May 20, according to the plea agreement.

Both pleaded guilty to four charges each of human smuggling — a deal contingent on them entering the plea at the same time.

15 people were taken into custody, with 10 rescued by lifeguards; the boat eventually went to shore near the Children’s Pool. La Jolla leaders call the loss of life ‘devastating.’

The men, both migrants themselves, agreed to lead the 16-person expedition of fellow Mexican nationals in place of paying their own smuggling fees of thousands of dollars each.

According to the plea agreement, the men admitted the boat was overloaded, causing the engine to temporarily stall in the open ocean midway through the overnight trip.

As the boat neared Marine Street Beach, the men stopped about 80 yards from shore and ordered the passengers to remove their life jackets and jump into the water, without regard to the passengers’ ability to swim, the plea agreement states. The men assured many of the passengers that the water was shallow.

Before sunrise, U.S. Border Patrol agents saw the boat and people in distress in the water. San Diego lifeguards rescued eight people and detained two more who had made it safely to the beach.

The boat then continued to drift a quarter-mile north before beaching. Five more people were apprehended. The body of Rogelio Perez Gutierrez was found in the surf.

Fifteen people were arrested Aug. 18 after a panga-style boat washed up on a La Jolla beach.

The surviving migrants — all men — told investigators they had paid $12,000 to $15,000 to be smuggled into the United States, according to the complaint.

The migrants identified Soto and Geraldo from a photo lineup, the complaint states.

The plea agreement also states that Soto and Geraldo did not provide the passengers with adequate food and water for the maritime journey.

Three of the charges the men pleaded guilty to carry a mandatory minimum sentence of five years, which is what defense attorneys and prosecutors have said they will recommend to the judge. Sentencing is scheduled for December. ◆